New research provides evidence that watching the 2019 movie “Joker” is associated with an increase in prejudice toward people with mental illness. The findings have been published in JAMA Network Open.
“A couple of years ago I was looking at some social survey data collected in New Zealand, where I am based,” said study author Damian Scarf. “One of the questions people were asked was ‘how would you feel if you had a new neighbour who…’ followed by things like ‘was a different ethnicity to you’, ‘was a different religion to you’, etc.”
“The question was also asked with respect to having a neighbour with a mental illness. While most people were comfortable living next to someone who was a different ethnicity or religion, only about 50% of people were comfortable living next to someone with a mental illness.”
“This prompted me to start investigating why, and media portrayals of mental illness seemed like a good place to start. Most people learn about mental illness through the media, whether it be news stories or fictional portrayals in movies, and it seems many of these portrayals are harmful. ‘Joker’ represented the perfect opportunity to investigate the impact of fictional portrayals,” explained Scarf, who is a senior lecturer at the University of Otago.
The researchers randomly assigned 164 adults to watch either “Joker” or the movie “Terminator: Dark Fate.” Before and after watching their assigned movie, the participants completed an assessment of prejudice towards people with mental illness. The assessment asked the participants how much they agreed with statements such as “I would feel unsafe being around someone who is mentally ill” and “The behaviour of people with mental illness is unpredictable.”
After controlling for age, sex, and history of mental illness, Scarf and his colleagues found that watching “Joker” was associated with an increase in prejudice towards those with mental illness. Scarf hopes the study highlights that “news stories and fictional portrayals of people with mental illness are typically negative and can impact how we view people with mental illness.”
“One question I have been thinking about is whether we can reduce the impact of movies like the ‘Joker.’ I don’t favour banning these types of movies so methods to mitigate the impact could be really important,” Scarf told PsyPost.
“I am not sure what form these might take but could involve presenting viewers with some facts following the movie (e.g., that most people with mental illness are not violent), making it clear that the portrayal in the movie is a work of fiction, etc. Another option would be for Hollywood to balance out how they portray mental illness, making sure they also put out movies that provide a more positive and realistic depiction of people struggling with mental illness.”
The study, “Association of Viewing the Films Joker or Terminator: Dark Fate With Prejudice Toward Individuals With Mental Illness“, was authored by Damian Scarf, Hannah Zimmerman, Taylor Winter, Hannah Boden, Sarah Graham, Benjamin C. Riordan, and John A. Hunter.